Every year huge amounts of food are wasted globally. In the first of this two-part series on food waste, we discuss what food waste is, what impact and threat it poses to the environment and the most common reasons for food waste.
What Is Food Waste?
Very often the terms “food loss” and “food waste” are used very closely. However, they refer to slightly different issues. Whilst “food loss” refers to food which is lost during the earlier stages of productions (for example, during harvest, in transportation or storage), “food waste” refers instead to edible food which has been thrown away. This food is usually thrown away either by supermarkets or consumers (including restaurants).
Food waste has become one of the biggest problems which mankind has to overcome, particularly as it contributes towards climate change. It is estimated that over one third of all food produced in the world actually goes to waste. In most developed countries, over 50% of all food waste actually takes place within our homes.
In the UK alone, it’s estimated that food waste is worth approximately £700 per year to the average family or £14 billion per year collectively. In fact, it would require less than one quarter of the food which is wasted each year in the UK, the rest of Europe and the US every year to feed the one billion people going hungry globally.
The Environmental Impact of Food Waste
However, it’s not just the economic cost of food waste which is concerning. Food waste has a significant impact on climate change. It is not simply the discarded food itself which proves problematic for the environment, but also all of the resources which are required to grow the food in the first place.
Huge amounts of land are required to grow food. This will only continue to increase as the global population increases in future. Currently, it’s estimated that an area larger than China is used to grow food which is simply wasted. Moreover, in order to access this land for farming or planting purposes, deforestation often takes place. This can lead to soil degradation, as well as the elimination of critical habitats for wildlife, displacement of indigenous populations and a worrying reduction in the number of greenhouse-gas absorbing trees which are also essential to the production of oxygen.
Water is also wasted. Water is required for crop irrigation, agricultural purposes and of course, as drinking water for livestock. Currently, around 25% of the world’s fresh water supply is used to grow food which ends up being wasted.
Finally, there is also the carbon footprint of food waste to consider. This not only refers to the 3.3. billion tonnes of carbon dioxide which are used each year in the production machinery, storage and transportation of food, but also to the harmful greenhouse gases emitted by the food waste itself. When food is thrown into landfills to rot, it begins to decompose in a space where it has no access to oxygen. As a result, it creates methane, a greenhouse gas which is up to 23 times more harmful than carbon dioxide.
Most Common Reasons for Food Waste
There are a number of reasons why so much food is wasted every year:
1. People buy more food than they need or can eat – this is especially evident at all-you can eat buffets. Similarly, promotions in supermarkets, such as buy-one-get-one-free offers, encourage people to purchase food they may not require and which ends up being wasted.
2. Supermarkets refuse to stock or sell produce which is wonky or a little odd – despite its strange appearance, most of this produce is perfectly safe to eat, but is instead wasted. This is sometimes further compounded by the fact that, in some instances, government guidelines assign grades to certain foods (such as fruits and vegetables), based on the texture, size, shape and ripeness of produce. Retailers who only stock higher grade produce will inevitably waste food which is not deemed high enough quality as a result.
3. Customers are confused over labelling – in recent years there has been much discussion over the misinterpretation of labels, such as “use by”, “sell by” and “best before”. The result is that many retailers and consumers throw away food which has reached its label date, despite often still being perfectly safe for consumption. A recent campaign has been launched in the UK which encourages consumers to sniff and taste food before throwing it away. The slogan, “Look, Smell, Taste, Don’t Waste” is designed to prevent food waste in the home.
This week, we invite you to begin to consider your household food waste. Take this time to start to note how much food is wasted in your household. Are there certain types of food which you throw away more than others?
Begin to consider why this might be. Have you bought too much? Are you throwing it away because it is inedible or because of the labelling? Where are you throwing away your food waste?
If you don’t already have a food caddy, make sure you get one. You can easily request one from your local council and purchase new caddy liners from supermarkets or libraries. Even better, food waste is collected weekly, meaning that it helps to reduce unpleasant odours in your home.